Ex-Lebanon prime minister charged with murder over explosion at Beirut port

Ex-Lebanon prime minister charged with murder over explosion at Beirut port
Ex-Lebanon prime minister charged with murder over explosion at Beirut port
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A heavily damaged grain storage facility in Beirut, two years after the explosion.Image AFP

The devastating blow in August 2020 left more than 220 dead. A large batch of ammonium nitrate then caught fire and exploded. The investigating judge in charge of the investigation, Tarek Bitar, has also charged the country’s top magistrate, the head of the secret service, Abbas Ibrahim, and a number of others. They all deny guilt.

That 63-year-old Diab was indeed negligent in the run-up to the explosion, has already been established in a report by human rights organization Human Rights Watch (HRW). The then prime minister was informed two months before the disaster that there were hundreds of tons of explosive material in the port. On July 22, two weeks before the explosion, he received a three-page memo again stating the danger looming. He told HRW that he had given the document to his adviser. He later acknowledged that he had read it.

Since the disaster two and a half years ago, only officials have been taken into custody, including the port director and the head of customs. Investigating judge Bitar ordered on Tuesday to release five of the total of seventeen detainees.

Investigator opposed

The politically responsible will get away without consequences for the time being, and the chance that it will come to a lawsuit (let alone a conviction) is very small. Bitar has been opposed from the very beginning: he is said to be politically motivated, according to a chorus of voices led by Hezbollah, one of the most dominant forces in Lebanese politics. A Hezbollah spokesman called Bitar’s investigation a “black spot” on the country’s coat of arms on Monday. Earlier, the investigating judge received a thinly veiled death threat from Hezbollah.

A predecessor of Bitar had to leave the field earlier because he would be biased. Parliament refused to lift the immunity of suspected politicians. Bitar also received no response from the Ministry of the Interior (which must sign for the execution of arrest warrants). When he himself received a series of libel charges from politicians, he had no choice but to halt the investigation.

Relatives are happy that he is now going back to work, no matter how small the chances of success are. Fifteen interrogations are planned for next month, according to Reuters news agency. “We are run by a mafia, and all the people he accuses are part of it,” said Tatiana Hasrouty, whose father died in the disaster.

Tribunal in Leidschendam

Every month, the relatives organize demonstrations, which is not without risk. Recently, their spokesman (the brother of one of the victims), William Noun, was briefly detained and questioned by the police after he had spoken out strongly about the lack of justice. Portraits of the victims – prominently posted along a major road in the center of Beirut – were removed with a high-pressure hose last week on behalf of a contractor.

Little is known about Bitar himself, he is rarely seen in public. It is striking that he operates without any loyalty to a group or party – unique in Lebanon, the city thrives on sectarian bargaining and patronage.

In fact, Bitar isn’t just taking on a group of drivers; he takes on a culture. Leaders in Lebanon have never been held accountable for their actions, ranging from the bloodiest episodes of the civil war (1975-1990) to the assassination of Prime Minister Rafic Hariri in February 2005. Impunity is the norm: former warlords with blood on their hands are the face of decent political parties these days.

A special tribunal was set up in Leidschendam for the murder of Hariri, but this is widely regarded as a farce. Two Hezbollah members were sentenced to life imprisonment in absentia, but their clients escaped the dance.

The article is in Dutch

Tags: ExLebanon prime minister charged murder explosion Beirut port

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